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The Burden of Freedom

By February 15, 2012 2 Comments

I used to think I knew how to read Dostoyevsky.  More specifically, back when we used to talk about “existentialism,” I used to be confident about what was going on in the fable of the Grand Inquisitor–that dastardly villain who was all too happy to relieve the stunted and benighted of their freedom.  The fable gives the reader a sense of being in on the secret: the secret that those who submit to authority lack the courage or will to be free.  And by letting us, the readers, in on the secret, we are thereby inoculated and go away congratulating ourselves on our “authenticity” and individuality.  “God I thank you that I am not like other people, those weaklings who forfeit their freedom for bread, circuses, and authority.”  

I’m less confident in this reading now.  I hope it’s not a sign of the creeping fascism that comes with middle age, but I wonder more and more whether the Grand Inquisitor might not be gracious.  [That I’m entertaining such thoughts could be chalked up to the fact that I’m reading Augustine alongside Jonathan Edwards right now!]  And it seems to me I’m not alone in this regard.  Indeed, I think one could read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as its own ambivalent commmentary on whether “freedom” is all it’s cracked up to be.  

But more immediately, I’ve been looping a Fleet Foxes song, “Helplessness Blues,” which opens with these words (listen along with the video below):

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.

I see a generation of young people for whom this could be something of an anthem.  And those of us who are working out our reactionary, liberatarian relationship to authority will have a hard time understanding the yearning to be bound, this longing to be “a functioning cog in some great machinery.”  (Though note it’s not just any old “machinery,” but a system that serves “something beyond me.”)  We’re apt to read this as a ploy of the villainous Grand Inquisitor who would rob them of their freedom.  But what if they find quite a different freedom in being bound?  What if liberation looks like submission?  Can we imagine how authority can be a gift?  



  • Mark R says:

    The distinction between a "great machine" and just a machine is critical. Fleet Foxes, as an "indie" band, recognize this– otherwise they'd make different music for a different label.

    Great post.

  • Lander says:

    Ah, fantastic. Thank you for the insight. And, yes, as a twenty-something indie-hipster Christian something intuitively rings true in the longing to serve as a mere functioning cog. And perhaps this is the draw to the "machinery" of liturgy?

    For the twenty-something indie-hipsters, however, it is key that they only serve "something":

    "But I don't, I don't know what that will be
    I'll get back to you someday soon you will see"

    It seems the freedom to be anything you want is indeed undermined (the last line of the song always strikes me as an ironic statement); however, there is just as clearly the malaise of losing any clear authoritative gift, isn't there? The most this generation seems to be bound by is some agricultural authority, the orchard or organic farming, but is this substantial enough to really bind us for the quite different freedom?

    Thanks again. Have to keep this in mind as I continue through The Brothers Karamazov and when I gather the courage to start Freedom again!

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